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Backus and partner place 2nd in the ABA’s National Tax Challenge

Competitions held in San Francisco

By Shirley Shuman

Seth Backus, a Braxton County High graduate, and his law-school partner Logan Wagner recently placed second in the American Bar Association’s annual Law Student Tax Challenge, a national competition. In the last part of the Challenge, six semifinalist teams chosen from the national entries, competed Friday in the last stages of the competition in San Francisco. Judges were professional lawyers from throughout the nation.

Students from 64 law schools throughout the United States took the challenge. Using written briefs on a case provided by the ABA Tax Department,  the ABA’s Tax Division selected the six semifinalists.  Backus and Wagner emerged from the semi-final event as one of three finalists. Speaking of their second-place finish, Backus said, “I’m happy with the result and proud of the work Logan and I did to get there.”

The work they “did to get there” began  in their 2023  first-term tax clinic at  WVU’s College of Law. Backus explained that writing was an important part of the tax clinic and that Professor Stephanie Coleman assigned the written response to the problem featured in this year’s ABA Tax Challenge.  She also urged her students to enter their written  responses in the ABA Challenge. Two teams from the clinic did, and the team of Backus and Wagner was chosen as one of six semi-finalists from law schools throughout the nation. From that point, the two began preparing for the San Francisco finals. Backus noted, using the background they had from their law classes taught by Professor Elaine Wilson and law clinic,  they spent two weeks working on the oral defense required for the semi-finals and the finals. Wagner emphasized that he was “grateful for the guidance of our tax professionals, Elaine Wilson and Stephanie Coleman, who were an indispensable part of the preparation process.”

For that competition, a 25-minute oral defense  was the focus of the semi-final round. In the final round, Backus explained, they had 40 minutes to present and then defend their oral argument. They were required to answer questions from lawyers who assumed the roles of the client and of the senior attorney in their firms. Backus noted that, to answer questions from the “client,”  contestants had to simplify their information to the level of that “client’s” understanding. “That was difficult to do,” he said. “It helped that,  if one of us began a response and needed help, the other was ready to enter the conversation.”

Had they known the long hours of work they would spend with it, these two might have skipped accepting the challenge. However, that probably wouldn’t have happened. Wagner was as pleased as Backus with the results. “I’m proud of the hard work my partner Emmanuel [Seth] and I put into the competition,” he said.  A key to their success may have been their friendship along with their division of the brief. They split the brief in half, “according to our strengths,” Backus noted, “and that worked very well.”

Discussing the difficulties they encountered in the project, Backus said the hardest part was “finding a way to condense all the information we had, to organize and structure it.” What he enjoyed the most was the actual presentation.  Although he was “nervous at first” in the final portion of the challenge, he found it “a very enjoyable experience.”

These two young men may not become tax lawyers once they have their law degrees, but both agree that preparing for and participating in this challenge was “definitely worthwhile.”  In addition to the value of the experience, each received a monetary prize and a trophy.